Israel's new ambassador no stranger to Shanghai

Yao Minji
Irit Ben Abba, Israel's new ambassador to China, has visited Shanghai at all its key moments since 1993, shortly after the two countries established diplomatic relations.
Yao Minji

Shanghai is no stranger to Irit Ben Abba, Israel's new ambassador to China who arrived at the end of January and recently visited Shanghai for her first time in the post.

She has been a regular visitor in official capacities since her first posting almost 30 years ago.

"The development is very impressive," she says. "It seems as if the pandemic didn't hit Shanghai much. Shanghai is booming. You can see very intensive economic activity here.

"That is the immediate impression, especially when I compare China 30 years ago and today."

The career diplomat with an East Asian studies background has visited the city at all its key moments since 1993, shortly after the two countries established diplomatic relations and just before the structural topping-out of the Oriental Pearl Tower.

The nostalgic view of the tower from the same hotel she stayed at in 1993 reminded the ambassador of her first trip accompanying Shimon Peres, the 9th President and 8th Prime Minister of Israel. He visited China as Foreign Minister after the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1992. 

Ben Abba, then first secretary on China desk, was among the delegates who visited Beijing and Shanghai. Two years later, she returned to the city to attend the opening of the Consulate General. 

In 2008, she was appointed commissioner of Israel to Shanghai for the Expo 2010, and visited the city again for preparations of the pavilion. Her last stay in the city was 11 years ago, when the Expo opened in May 2010.

As the 30th anniversary of established diplomatic ties draws near, the diplomat is delighted to share the rapid and significant developments of the bilateral relations, and of the city of Shanghai she has witnessed first-hand, and where it may go further amidst a global post-pandemic recovery.

"You really see the intensive Israeli economic interactions with China when you look at Shanghai and the Yangtze Delta region. 

"While other parts of China are becoming very important centers for innovation, we are seeing more Israeli companies working in those areas as well," she told Shanghai Daily on her recent visit.

Israel's new ambassador no stranger to Shanghai
Ti Gong

Irit Ben Abba (center) at a meeting during her recent visit to Shanghai

In the Yangtze Delta region, she visited Israeli and Chinese companies, listened to feedback from Israeli businesspeople and toured several innovation parks including the China-Israel Innovation Hub (Shanghai) in Putuo District. 

Launched in 2019, it was a signature project after the city and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in science and technology in 2018.

Phase II expansion started soon after Phase I, with two key projects in the pipe line – a garden-style scientific research center and an international high-rise office in Shanghai's former dye chemical factory and the time-honored pen company Hero.

"First and foremost, there is still plenty room for collaboration in high technologies. We are a small country, and we mainly have collaboration with China in services and tech transfer," she said. 

"China is already well developed in technology, and moving ahead very fast, especially in its innovation and capacity, so there is a great appetite for new technologies. That naturally attracted more interest from Israel ... since we have strategic partnerships in innovation."

That innovation partnership is spreading into all industries and regions, according to the ambassador. 

She cited the Guangzhou International Bio-Island, a collaboration in biopharmaceutics and life sciences. She also focuses on southwestern Yunnan Province, a center for agricultural developments which has attracted most agriculture-related Israeli companies in China.

Shanghai and the Yangtze Delta have attracted the largest cluster of Israeli business people, with whom Ben Abba met for the first time post-pandemic.

"The number of Israeli business people has reduced. Some left and haven't returned yet due to the pandemic, so I met a smaller number of group than maybe I would meet before the pandemic," she explained.

"But I was impressed with the number of Israeli business people who are still around, and the diversity of business they have here that spans consulting, architecture, design, high-technology of course, and education, agriculture. I'm very happy to see that we are not only concentrating on certain sectors."

China and Israel have been quick and effective in vaccinating their people, leaving many optimistic for resuming physical meetings soon, including the ambassador.

She has heard from many Israelis hoping to visit China soon, and Chinese with an interest to collaborate with Israel companies in high-tech. 

"Many people said we have had enough of virtual discussions and we want to meet our counterparts physically. They really miss it," she said, adding a hope for physical celebrations of the upcoming 30th anniversary.

"We can't announce anything at the moment depending on how the pandemic pans out. But this will definitely happen with high-level exchanges, whether virtually or physically. We are in the process of preparations. We are geared up."

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